Etch, a Sketch

Julie Etchingham has the challenging job of chairing the seven-way leaders debate, the only one including the Prime Minister, on Thursday

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The Independent Online

After Jeremy Paxman emerged as the clearest winner from Thursday’s election encounter with David Cameron and Ed Miliband, what does the only real debate between all party leaders this week have in store for its chair, Julie Etchingham?

Etchingham, a veteran of BBC, Sky News and ITV news, with more than two decades’ experience, will have to moderate the seven-way encounter between Cameron, Miliband, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood.

Some in Westminster believe it will be a nightmare task. The two-hour debate could descend into a messy shouting match unless Cambridge-educated Etchingham can keep them all in line.

Yet colleagues say the 45-year-old, the regular presenter of ITV’s News at Ten, has a tough but fair approach. She may not feast on political flesh like Paxo but she is also “no pushover”, said one.

She will direct questions from the studio audience for the ITV debate before opening up a free-flowing discourse between leaders. It is this gear change that poses the greatest challenge because it could descend into chaos – and have the audience switching off.

Etchingham wrote last year that, sitting beside Pope Francis at an event, his Holiness clasped her hands and said, “Pray for me.” Come Thursday, will it be the party leaders begging for her mercy.